The Philosopher's Path (or Tetsugaku-no-Michi as it is known in Japan) is one of the greatest exploratory walks you can experience in Kyoto. The Path is located in the northern area of Higashiyama at the base of Kyoto's East Mountain. It is a place to wander, to find yourself, to embrace peace and quiet and to see what makes Kyoto so unique as a city. The path follows the Lake Biwa Canal for around 29 kilometres at the base of the mountain. The trail is lined with cherry trees on either side. During the cherry blossom season, this is one of the most popular spots to come and view the spectacle.
The canal was first to build during the Meiji period to power Japan's first power plant. With this power plant came the revitalization of the area due to electric modernization. The path is named after one of Japan's most famous philosophers, Nishida Kitaro. Nishida Kitaro would come to this area of Kyoto and walk along the river while he practiced his meditations. He would do this every day on his walk to the University where he taught. Now, his practice is immortalized forever and hundreds of people still walk with him in spirit.
The path is so far away from the centre of the city, and being so close the mountains, even the air is fresher up here. All the better for deep thinking and relaxation. Start your journey along the path either early in the evening or late at night. Tourists flock here throughout the day and the tranquil atmosphere is ruined with you have to fight your way down the sidewalk. To get to the first stop on the Philopher’s Path, take the Karasuma Line to Imadegawa Station. From there get on bus 203 to
Ginkakuji-michi. From there it’s a short 5 minute walk to the temple.
#1. Ginkaku-ji Temple
To start the Philosopher's Path, make your way to Ginkaku-ji Temple. Ginkaku-ji or the Silver Pavillion is known for it's incredibly preserved Higashiyama architecture and its calming zen garden. If you haven't visited this temple before, this is a great opportunity to do so.
After visiting the temple, you might also consider seeing Hakusasonso Hashimoto Kansetsu Garden & Museum. Hashimoto Kansetsu was a famous Japanese painter who lived and worked in Kyoto during the Showa and Taisho eras. These days you can tour the former home, studio and alluring garden. Admission for adults is 1300 yen but worth it if you're into Japanese gardens and art.
#3. The Flora and Fauna
While walking down the canal, take your time as you walk to admire all the different plants along the route. You'll pass hydrangeas, narcissus, mugwort, bamboo, Japanese maple and if you're there in the Spring, lots of cherry blossoms. But plants aren't the only thing that pops up along the way. I saw all sorts of different animal life like ducks, turtles, bush warblers and a stunning grey heron.
Humongous carp and koi also swim up and down the canal and often you'll see old men and young children sitting on benches beside the water, throwing bread into feed the fish. Dog walkers are pretty common here, so if you're a puppy lover, wandering this route will result in lots of opportunities to see local dogs off for a walk.
Sagan is a small but quaint coffee and snack shop along the route with charming decor and a back patio, perfect for having a coffee early in the morning.
#7. Honen-in Temple
Standing in from of the moss-covered gate, you’ll find yourself at the doorway to Honen-in Temple. Honen-in was built in 1680 to honour Honen (1133-1212), the founder of the Jodo sect of Buddism.
Honen-in Temple is especially known for their sand sculptures. Giant mounds of sand are created and flattened on top to allow artists to come to draw different patterns into the sand.
If you need something else to snack on or want to take a break along the way, another cafe worth checking out is Yojiya Cafe Ginkakuji. No cafe in the world might have a better view than this, and their matcha lattes are 100x better than anything you'd get at Starbucks or a vending machine.
#9. Spotting Jizo Protectors
Along the way, don't be surprised if you see rocks or stones, etched with kanji characters sitting along the side of the path wrapped in fabrics. These are Jizo, protectors of travellers in Buddism. Local women take care of these Jizo, dressing them and keeping them warm. This is thought to endow these women to the gods for their life after death.
#10. Anraku-ji Temple
If you’re travelling along the path during the fall you can’t miss stopping off at the Anraku-ji Temple. Picturesque maple trees and their bright red leaves fall on mass onto the steps of the temple, creating a red carpet-like effect as you walk up the stairs.
#11. Otoyo Shrine
The Otoyo Shrine is a smaller shrine off the trail. Most shines are protected by lions, dogs or dragons. This shrine is protected by mice. Otoyo Shrine is named after the deity Okuninushi-no-mikoto, the god of marriage. Although mice and marriage might not seem a likely combination, their presence comes from an old Japanese myth. It tales the tale of Okuninushi who met his princess in another world. The princess was put through many trials and almost perished in a fire, but a mouse appeared and told her of a hole in the ground where she could hide until the fire passed and the princess was saved so she could marry Okuninushi.
Mice are also thought to bring health, long life and happiness. People who come to worship here are said to be blessed with the ability to have a healthy baby.
#12. Nanzen-ji Temple
Nanzen-ji Temple is one of the last temples along the route. It was built in 1291 for Emperor Kameyama on the site of his previous palace. The best thing to see here are the Hōjō gardens.
The Hōjō gardens are one of the best examples of "karesansui" gardens in Japan. They mirror the natural forms of their environment, and unlike many European gardens, they are 90 percent gravel. This might seem odd and ugly but the result is a marriage of the natural environment and the man-made arts. Inside the Hōjō you'll find Japanese screen painting with golden embellishments by Kanō Tan'yū which are considered a National Treasure in Japan.
#13. Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji
The last temple to see along the way is Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji. Eikan-do is one of the most scenic temples in Kyoto with a collection of Amida Buddas which have been painstakingly restored to their original state. The ground of the temple stretch out for acres, and you'll see stunning zen gardens, architecture from various periods of Japan's history and even an overlook at the top of the path with a spectacular view over Kyoto.
This last temple concludes the walk through the Philosopher's Path. Don't feel the need to stop off at every stop. If something catches your eye, go exploring. If you'd prefer to just walk along the canal and meditate to the flow of the water, make that your experience. The trail offers so many options, so many places to explore. Take the time to make a pilgrimage here and discover when secrets you can uncover along the route.